UN warns of humanitarian crisis in Palestine

Since 2000, poverty rates increased from 22% to 56%.2 Palestinian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth is anticipated to drop to negative 25% in 2006 compared to 5% positive growth in 2005. (MaanImages/Hatem Omar)


The current humanitarian emergency followed the outbreak of violence in September 2000 and is a result of restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement, military operations, land confiscation and levelling and the construction of the Barrier. The Government of Israel (GoI) states that these measures were implemented to prevent militant attacks against its citizens.

A serious intensification of this situation is now possible following the victory of the Hamas party in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections held in January 2006.

The Government of Israel has stopped handing over to the PA VAT and customs taxes that it collects on Palestinian goods on its behalf. Recently however, the GoI has announced that it would use a proportion of this money to pay for electricity, water and fuel costs owed to Israeli companies. At the same time, Western donors signalled their intention to review their funding support to the PA — the nascent state structure they had supported with more than $7 billion in aid since the Oslo Accords in 1993. Broadly, the PA’s financial situation is summarised in the table below.

Unless this shortfall is made up on some other way, a functioning state apparatus risks being seriously undermined. Over 152,000 people are employed by the PA, their salaries support approximately one million people — or 25% of the Palestinian population. These people operate 62% of primary health clinics, all the major general hospitals bar one and 75% of primary and secondary schools.

Without PA salaries, poverty rates are predicted to increase sharply, conservatively, to 74%. Since 2000, poverty rates increased from 22% to 56%.2 Palestinian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth is anticipated to drop to negative 25% in 2006 compared to 5% positive growth in 2005.

At the same time the non-payment of 70,000 armed PA security personnel could lead to a highly volatile security situation and in turn to a possible rise in criminality. The level of insecurity will in large part determine the depth of the humanitarian crisis and could undermine the humanitarian response. And, while this is likely to be most acutely felt in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, if past patterns are any indication, the violence may also spill over and be directed at Israel, including the targeting of Israeli civilians.

A much weakened PA raises the prospect of higher death rates through rising insecurity, crumbling health systems, public health threats emanating from the breakdown of utilities such as solid waste disposal and sewage services. There is also a risk of rising morbidity and malnutrition from the loss of livelihoods.

Unlike other humanitarian crises in the world that are notoriously difficult to predict, if PA funding is not forthcoming, many of the dimensions of this one are measurable in advance. Three key uncertainties will affect its acuteness: the degree to which the PA can access alternative funding sources, the way the PA prioritises its response and allocates available funds and, perhaps the biggest wild card, the extent of both external and internal insecurity.

The extent of the collapse should not be underestimated. The UN is in no position — in terms of mandate or capacity — to duplicate or replace the role of the PA or the quality and extent of its services. In any case, any step in this direction would require the concurrence by the PA.

The humanitarian response will depend on tools which, for the most part, are blunt instruments that focus on survival. As in other parts of the world, they include increased food aid and temporary job creation to ease poverty and the provision of emergency life saving medical supplies. This sort of intervention may slow a further downward spiralling of the situation but cannot completely eliminate the possibility of human suffering. In development terms, it would be a backwards step.

While some humanitarian lessons might apply from other failed states, such as in Africa, for the most part state services functioned at low levels. In the case of the oPt, the likely decline of services will be more acutely felt because it affects an urbanised, former middle income society with a highly developed system of service provision on which the population has come to heavily rely.

Under the Fourth Geneva Conventions, Israel as the occupying power bears the responsibility for the welfare of the Palestinian population. In recent years, international donors and the Palestinian Authority have in practical terms taken on this role. If the PA is unable to provide basic services to the Palestinian population and donors withhold assistance, the emphasis will shift back to Israel to resume its legal obligation.

To download the full report click here.

Related Links

  • UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs